Impassioned character development combines with modern twist, audience engagement to create believability in Northwood High School’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’


Arthur Kraus and Sam Gracia (Dahlia Ehrenberg)
March 20, 2013

All reviews are written by Cappies student critics and edited by Cappies adult mentors prior to publishing.

Sienna Richardson, a student at McLean High School , reviews “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” performed by Northwood High School as part of The Cappies Critics and Awards Program.

In a time when mass-shootings have made mental health a hot-button political issue, the tragedy of mental illness and the power dynamics involved in psychological institutionalization are explored to their most terrifying extent in Northwood High School’s timely production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

With the success of Ken Kesey’s novel by the same name, Dale Wasserman immediately adapted “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” into a stage play, which debuted on Broadway in 1963, just a year after the publication of the book. In 1975, it was made into a highly successful motion picture starring Jack Nicholson, which became the second film at that time to win all five of the major Academy Awards.

Taking place inside a mental institution in the 1960s, this work critiques psychological care and examines the relationships that form within an asylum. When the recalcitrant Randle P. McMurphy is committed by the state, he overturns the power balance in the ward, challenging the perceptions of the other patients, and in the process, the authority of the formidable Nurse Ratched.

In Northwood High School’s production, this work took on a modern twist, with anachronistic neon hair and contemporary loungewear for the patients. Perhaps the most intriguing technical choice, however, was the placement of the audience onstage alongside actors, immersing them within the world of the play. The entire plot takes place within a single ward of the institution, and the actors dispersed themselves throughout the crowd during the show, interacting with audience members in an impressive show of commitment to characterization.

In one of the most engaging performances of the night, Arthur Kraus exhibited the passion and wit of McMurphy, completely transforming the society of the institution. Kraus’s magnetic stage presence afforded him the charisma and power necessary to portray McMurphy’s audacious rebelliousness, as he stalked into the ward, taking control of other patients within the first moments of his initial scene. The brilliant dynamic between Kraus and Hannah-Sophie Hirsch, who portrayed Nurse Ratched, was absolutely mesmerizing. The power struggle between these two talented performers was fought through both comedy, as McMurphy wanders about the ward in only heart-print boxers and a shower cap in order to unsettle Ratched, and intense drama, as Ratched attacks McMurphy psychologically and physically, ordering that he undergo painful electroshock therapy.

The almost familial unity within the supporting cast made their collective misfortune compellingly tragic. Although some performers exhibited a tendency to yell through moments of emotional intensity, Kiva Brick demonstrated remarkable emotional restraint as Harding, the head of the Patient’s Council. Brick’s layered portrayal revealed the vulnerability beneath Harding’s outward strength as a leader. Portraying the endearingly innocent Billy Bibbit, Billy Yendell’s compassion and psychological distress made his character perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the production. In a similarly affecting performance, Jamie Holmes portrayed the voluntarily mute "Chief" Bromden. Holmes’s split-second transitions from vivid internal narrative monologues to the blank façade he portrayed for the other patients were impeccable. In an impressive display of character development well above the capacity of many high school performers, Holmes came to life throughout the show in an incredibly believable transformation.

Northwood’s performance shone with actors who were clearly passionate about the story of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in a thoughtful production whose modernity made it relatable, causing audience members to question the state of psychological treatment in the present day.

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